The Sunday Tribune talked to musician and journalist Nathan Whittle about the garage scene he knows in Spain and his own life in music.
TST: Nathan, where are you from and how did you end up working and playing as a musician in Spain? What was the journey that led you there and why did you decide to stay part of the scene?
NW: I grew up in a small town just outside Manchester called Stalybridge and when I finished uni and moved back home I obviously gravitated closer to the city, to its vibrancy and nightlife. I started a band there with some friends that over a couple of years evolved into The Vipers. We put out a few records ourselves, had a single out on Dirty Water Records. The drummer, Ral, was Spanish, from Santander. I met my wife, who’s also from Santander, through him and the lure of a new life brought me here, the beach, the sun, the people. That was 10 years ago. When I arrived I hooked up with Ral again and we formed The Pulsebeats. The country was like a total breath of fresh air for me and I’ve been here ever since. When I arrived it blew me away just how many great bands were around, especially in a pretty small city.
TST: I gather the garage and punk circuit is thriving in Santander. What are the venues and festivals supporting the garage and punk scene there and in Spain as a whole?
NW: It’s thriving across the country really. The attitude towards bands and music was so refreshing after playing around the UK for 10 years. I found that bands are treated much better here by venues and festivals. Musicians by and large I think are still viewed as working performers and are generally paid for what they do. It helps when you want to get out of your own town and across the country. There’s a series of festivals throughout the year. I’m involved in the Action Weekend Festival in Santander, but the bigger ones are ones like Funtastic and Purple Weekend. They pull in more international bands on the garage circuit, but there’s always room for lots of Spanish acts. It really helps the whole scene. Here in Santander, which is a pretty small city, there are four or five decent venues for smaller touring bands to play and also a couple of bigger venues. In the past few years the scene here has really turned around and now there’s a lot to choose from, something going on every week.
TST: What bands that are currently active and performing in Spain do you recommend and why? Are there any all-women or mostly-women bands that you’d signal out as worth of attention?
NW: So many! A couple of my favourites are Los Chicos, The Government, Terrier, Los Tupper, Terbutalina. The guys from Los Chicos also run a label (FOLC Records) that put out some fantastic records. Bands with women, yeah, there are some great ones here as well, some really original bands. Juanita Banana play a kind of tiki-garage and put on a great live show. Juana Chicharro put a flamenco touch to their rock ‘n’ roll. We put them on at the last Action Weekend, along with Las Jennys de Arroyoculebro who are a total riot! Terrier are also 50/50, great garage pop. I guess the one that is making bigger waves is Hinds. We played with them a few years ago and they didn’t grab me at all, but I caught them on TV a few months ago and they’ve really improved. They were so much tighter and the songs had really come on.
TST: Tell me about your band, what you play, what the other’s play. What is it that you think is a particular characteristic of the band and what makes it interesting for you as a performer and for the audience? Any albums or releases recently?
NW: The Pulsebeats, yeah. I’m the singer and rhythm guitarist. Ral’s on drums, and then there’s Suco on guitar and Alex on bass. I think what makes us interesting, and it was the same with The Vipers, is that we don’t try and pigeon-hole ourselves into any style. It’s all rock ‘n’ roll, but we draw from punk, garage, blues, power pop, hard rock. It all goes in the mix. We’re like a 4.way Venn diagram. All of us go off in slightly different directions, but there’s a massive overlap in what we listen to. When we write, we just focus on getting the best we can out of every tune and that it sounds like Pulsebeats. We all bring stuff to the table and no one is precious about their ideas, which really helps us write collaboratively. Usually one of us brings an idea to rehearsal and then it gets hammered out. Sometimes we fire through an original idea and it’s done and down in 15 minutes. No changes. It’s great when that happens, like a real spark. Other times we really have to work to find the way through a song
TST: If a garage or punk band either starting out or wanting to expand their range wanted to perform on the Spanish circuit, what would you recommend them to do, who should they contact. Are there any particular festivals you’d suggest they might approach or attend?
NW: There are tons of festivals and venues to play at, all over the country. Festival-wise, Fuzzville, Funtastic, Purple, Fuzz In The City, Monkey Week, Action Weekend. It will depend on what kind of draw the band may have as some of them are more difficult to get on. In terms of gigs, I’d try and hit the bigger cities like Madrid, but it’s always best to try and make some contacts there first. In Santander, there are venues like The New that put on gigs almost every day and are always open to putting on bands from out of town. Then you’ve got to find a local band to play with. Venues like that don’t charge to rent and then you keep the door. It can still be tough, but you got to start making contacts.
TST: What do you think the ethos and ethic is of garage and punk? Do you think it’s the same across borders, in say the UK, France and Spain or is it different in each location? Is there an international community of musicians in this genre that stretches further than a local band’s environment?
NW: Co-operation and DIY. There are so many little scenes all over Europe that join up through the bands and promoters. I’d say it’s the same across Europe. Punk and garage I think is a genre that attracts bands who play and organise themselves on that ethos. It’s the love of the music and the life that comes above everything else. There are few people in the scene that see their music a means to live, although we’d all wish it were! That instills a certain attitude in people. It’s all about playing music, having a blast and meeting new people.
TST: How long have you been playing? How do you keep an interest in an area of music over a long time? Is that a struggle for you or is music or is it a pure delight?
NW: I’ve been playing since I was seven, and in bands since I was 14. It’s never a struggle to keep interested as there are so many bands to discover, both new and old. It’s a goldmine. Sometimes I think that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to listen to everything. I’ve been listening more to power pop bands from the 70s and 80s recently and it’s opened up a whole new world of bands for me. The big names I’ve always known and liked, but finding bands that only put out one single, but one amazing single is like that diamond in the rough. Also, I’ve been writing about bands for various websites and magazines for the last 10 years so have quite a few contacts with independent labels and PR people. Every week I get a few emails about new releases. I try to check out as many as I can but it’s something that I do in what little spare time I have so can sometimes end up drowning in stuff I want to write about. Music has been a refuge for me since I was a kid so it’s a pure and unadulterated delight.
TST: Finally, of any artists from any country or any period working in garage and punk, who are your favourites and who would you recommend people listen to who are starting out to enjoy the genre? I’m interested in women musicians in particular!
NW: One of my favourite garage bands is The Dirtbombs. I think of bands around nowadays, Mick Collins embodies the drive and living life for the love of his music more than most. For me, the there were two compliations that really got me hooked on garage. The mythical Nuggets set, and then a Rough Trade one from 2002. I recently bought my daughter the LP Girls In The Garage, which has some great 60’s garage tunes. Right now there’s a US band called The Darts that I really like that are getting out more and more across Europe. They are definitely worth checking out! There are so many labels that specialise in punk and garage that the well is endless. And may it never dry up!